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Erez Marom Photography

Article: Composition Basics in Macro Photography

Posted on 7th August, 2014 - Back to Blog Listings

A lot has already been said about composition. Every aspiring photographer knows about the rule of thirds, about the appeal of diagonal lines and about the rule of lead room. I can't fully discuss composition in one or two articles, nor do I think it's necessary in a specialized series about macro. Yet I do plan to mention a few points, emphasize and exemplify the application of compositional rules to macro, and, in addition – talk about elements which are more prominent in macro than in other areas, and thus need special consideration. I will also use plenty of examples, as this is critical in getting the hang of composition.

I have already mentioned point of view as a critical aspect of composition in macro photography. Shooting from the same point and height as the subject of view as the serves to create the feeling of closeness which is so important in wildlife imagery. I will not discuss this further in this article.

The rule of lead room is important in macro, as it is in all areas of wildlife photography. This rule states that a frame should contain extra space in the direction where the subject's eyes are looking. Indeed, having a subject looking at the edge of the frame is unappealing. But this specific rule is but one among many ideas referring to the more general notion of balance in the image. I'll try to list the guidelines I see as most useful.

This gorgeous red eyed tree frog is facing left. I thus positioned it on the right side of the image, and left some lead room to the left.
Lead room doesn’t have to be toward the right or left. This dragonfly was looking downward, and so that’s where I left extra space.

The idea of lead room can be extended into a rule that's better fitting to macro: one doesn't only need to leave more room in the direction of the eyes compared to the opposite direction, but the amount of room should take into account the shape and body structure of the subject. In macro, lots of subjects have very long and narrow abdomens, for example damselflies, which are extremely "front heavy". Leaving a normal amount of lead room isn't enough to balance a damselfly's shape, but since the damselfly is so long, it's very easy to get tempted into filling the frame with it. One could say that the center of mass of the subject should be used as the reference point utilized to apply the rule of lead room, rather than the whole subject.

Wanting to get good detail on this damselfly has caused me to leave too little room in front of it, unbalancing the image.
A better balanced damselfly shot. There is enough lead room relatively to the subject’s shape.

The Rule of Thirds plays a similar role in macro as in other types of photography, and offers another guideline to maintain balance. Most of my images are either centered or follow the rule of thirds - this usually depends of whether the subject is looking straight at the camera or to either side.

Placing this red eyed tree frog on the right third of the image gives a good balance in the frame.
This fly is looking straight into the camera, so it was a good idea to center it perfectly.

Another important thing to bear in mind is that having the major lines in the image parallel to the edges is often unappealing. Try to give your images diagonals, and they will benefit greatly. 

Note how the diagonal position of the plant gives this image a dynamic feel. The robber fly seems ready to attack!
The same subject in a poorly-composed image. The parallel lines and lack of lead room have rendered this image boring and unattractive.
This strawberry poison dart frog shot has a very dynamic feel, thanks to the diagonal lines and the fact that the frog is facing upwards.
This dragonfly’s wings are very strong diagonals. The 'X' shape defines the frame, giving it a unique look.

When shooting invertebrates in the classic "animal standing on a diagonal plant" pose, try not to have the plant cross the image from corner to corner. The subject itself has compositional weight, and to balance it the plant should cross the frame's edges at a lower point.

The branch crosses the frame under the corner-to-corner diagonal, to balance the katydid's presence.
Another example: This orange-tip butterfly adds compositional weight and 'pushes' the leaf on which it’s standing below the diagonal, thus creating a balanced image.

The amount of distance from the corner-to-corner diagonal should depend on the compositional weight of the subject.

This subject has a heavy compositional weight. See how the composition completes the corner-to-corner diagonal by pointing the robber fly’s back side exactly toward the corner. This enabled me to maintain balance while using the visual properties of the subject.
This ladybug had little compositional weight, so I allowed myself to place the leaf on which it was standing close to the diagonal.

Another very important guideline is cut hard or don't cut at all.
It’s often problematic to include the whole macro subject in a frame. Insects sometimes have very long antennae, and so including the whole body necessarily means shooting it using a relatively small magnification ratio. This often contradicts our wish to obtain good detail in the subject’s body, so we sometimes compromise and cut just ‘some’ of it protruding body parts. This can seriously hurt the balance in the image, leaving us with neither good composition nor good detail. My advice is that if you find long body parts too obstructive, just get as close as you need without caring about cutting them off. You’ll sometimes get a very good, detailed and balanced result even if you leave a large portion of the subject out of the frame.

Without feeling any shame about it, I cut off most of these red-eyed tree frog's embryos, to allow for more detail in those included in the frame.
I cut off much of this spider’s body in order to get good detail in its front part. Still, the image is well balanced and I am at peace with the composition.
To get better detail on this red eyed tree frog’s semi-transparent eyelid, I had to cut off most of its body.

Lastly, it’s extremely important to stress that these rules are meant to be broken. Experiment with composition, try unusual methods and feel free to ignore conventions. But, and this is a big but, always mean what you do and be thoughtful of it. This is what art is all about.